Picking Up A "Big Bird"

Posted 02/12/04

By Keith Horton

Early in the afternoon of August 26, 1964, a TWA Boeing 331C in passenger configuration was coming in to land from the north at the Kansas City Airport. The approach was a little too low and it struck the dike encircling the airport, causing the two main landing gear to tear away. The airplane continued to settle onto the runway on its belly and nose landing gear, then slid about 4,000 feet further down the runway before coming to a stop -- the two detached main landing gear structures with wheels still attached tumbling along behind. There were no injuries to passengers or crew, but there was considerable damage to the belly of the airplane.

Like a scene out of the movie "Airport," the airplane was blocking the main runway and it was essential that it be removed as quickly as possible. I was called to lend technical assistance on the job. By the time I arrived on the scene, the passengers and baggage had been unloaded, and work was under way to get the cargo out of the lower cargo compartments, made all the more difficult because of damage to the belly.

In order to move the airplane, we would have to raise it high enough to temporarily install new landing gear and tow it to the hangar, but first we would have to assure that the structures on each side of the airplane where the landing gear attached were not damaged too badly. With the airplane lying there on it's crushed belly, however, we were not able to gain access to the two structural attachment points.

Prior experience and examination of the gear that had been torn off, led us to believe that the structure, even if damaged, would still be able to support the weight of the airplane. The use of two large mobile cranes, one on each side, would be by far the safest and quickest method of raising the airplane but none were immediately available. So we turned to Plan B -- using jacks to raise the airplane -- a difficult and risky job.

This was a big, big bird we had on our hands, in fact the largest and heaviest that TWA was then operating. It had a wingspan of 146 feet, was 152 feet long and, by the time we got the remaining fuel out of the tanks, we would be attempting to raise an empty airplane still weighing about 170,000 to 180,000 pounds – that’s 85 to 90 tons. Still, to buy a replacement would cost over $7 million.

There were three main jacking points. One at the nose, which would accommodate a regular jack designed for use on aircraft. However, the two other points, one under the inboard portion of each wing, were so close to the ground that with the airplane resting on its belly we would not be able to use regular airplane jacks.

Implementing Plan C., we called Belger’s, a local heavy-duty hauling and handling company, to give us a hand. They had smaller jacks of sufficient capacity, but they had a movement stroke of only about 20 inches. OK, Plan D now came into play. Using Belger’s jacks, the airplane could be raised about 20 inches to allow building a tower of heavy timber under each wing to support the airplane while the jacks were retracted, and then we could reposition the jacks on higher timber supports to lift the airplane another foot and a half.

We were going to have to raise the airplane a total of about seven feet to be high enough to accept the new landing gear. Care had to be taken to assure the wooden support towers were carefully laid up, with special attention to making them wide enough at the base so we wouldn’t have a tower topple over. The vertical fin on that airplane rose to a height of over 40 feet, so those platforms had to be wide enough and strong enough to withstand any movement or twisting effect if there were wind pushing on the tail from the side.

Furthermore, since the jacking points were near the center of the total weight of the airplane, it might want to tilt down on its tail if there weren't sufficient extra ballast in the forward cargo compartment.

Discussing these concerns with MKC’s maintenance chief John Cooper, I mentioned that I believed the jacking operation should be very carefully controlled and supervised. His reply was that he was glad I had "volunteered" for the job, and he then got into his truck and drove back to his office. So thanks to my mouth, I now had the job.

The Belger people left to get a truckload of heavy timbers while I talked to TWA weight-and-balance engineers to see how much ballast would be needed in the forward cargo compartment. A sufficient number of sand bags were loaded, and one jack was placed at the nose gear position.

By mid-afternoon serious jacking and timber towering had begun. It was a slow process and care had to be taken to assure that the work was closely coordinated on each side of the airplane. We also had to be careful, from a safety standpoint, that no more people were under the airplane than was absolutely necessary. After the airplane had been raised a few feet we were able to examine the landing gear attachment structures on each side of the airplane and were glad to see that they would be satisfactory.

The jacking and shoring procedure continued for another few hours or so but we found that when the wooden support towers were built up to about five or six feet tall, the wood would compress when the weight of the airplane was on them. In the process, we discovered that the first eight or ten inches of jacking effort were lost due to the compression of the wooden towers.

Darkness had fallen by the time the jacking was high enough to be able to roll the replacement landing gears into place. Then they had to be lifted up about two feet with additional jacks in order to fit up into the support structure. After the gear were attached, we then started the process of lowering the airplane by the reverse of the jacking procedure until, with a great sigh of relief, the airplane finally was standing on its new legs.

It was now well past midnight, and we had been watching the sky very carefully as a thunderstorm had been forecast to arrive in the early morning hours. An occasional flash of lightning could be seen in the distance, and we surely didn't want to be out there on that ramp when lightning was nearby. All the jacks, associated equipment and piles of lumber were hurriedly cleared away so we could prepare to tow the airplane to a hangar on the west side of the airport. The towing would have to be done very slowly and carefully, as the temporary gear had not been fully attached to the support structure.

At about four a.m. the airplane was rolled into Slick Airways hangar on the west side of the field, and the rain started falling just as we were closing the hangar doors -- very close timing.

I arrived home about nine that morning, some twenty-six hours after heading to work the previous morning. About two months later, the airplane was completely repaired and back in service, which is more than I can say for our back and leg muscles which were quite sore due to all the crawling around and physical exertion involved in picking up a "Big Bird."

Keith Horton (1941-198) served in Maintenance/Tech Services - Engineering

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